Duelling With Duality: An Interview With Pop Mastermind Rostam

If there’s anything to know about music, you can bet Rostam Batmanglij has the answers. First breaking ground as an original founding member of cult band Vampire Weekend, the classically-trained songwriting luminary (who goes mononymously by his first name) has extended his craft across genres and forms, from scoring music for film and TV, to releasing music as one half of electro-soul outfit Discovery, and lending his production and writing chops to some huge names in music — think Frank Ocean, Haim, Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen and Kid Cudi. Just last year, he unleashed a collaborative album with Hamilton Leithauser of Walkmen, placing his own name on a project for the first time.

For his debut solo LP, ‘Half Light’, the Washington-raised, Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist drew from over a decade of his own work, expanding on old ideas and incorporating his own interpretations of ‘American music’ alongside touches of his Iranian heritage. On the album, his lyrics are elegant, equal parts candid and calculated, while the instrumentation experiments with melodies and rhythms to defy conventions of sound, making for a thoughtful yet accessible listen.

Rostam took time out during his highly-anticipated North America X Europe tour to chat to us about interning for the Oxford English Dictionary, challenging the art of pop music, and writing an album during the tumultuous 2016 US presidential election.

Best Before: Hi, Rostam. How are you?

Rostam: I’m good!

Are you still in Brooklyn?

No – actually, I’m in LA.

Right – you’ve got an upcoming show there. A couple weeks ago, you played a sold-out show in your stomping grounds, Brooklyn, and your parents actually flew over for that. How was that?

It was great! It was really good and positive – a lot of fun.

You played with some live strings in your band. How have audiences been responding to the new songs?

I think people connect with them. I definitely think that people who like the record, when they come to see me, they feel something pretty deep. The show that I played in Brooklyn was the first time I played a show since putting out the album, so the biggest difference was that people were singing along.

“If I made a really simple pop song, I would want it to break certain rules, in order to be unique. Otherwise, I would feel like I was lying to myself.”

That’s awesome. You’ve come to be known for your work as a producer, but you’ve said it’s actually easier to finish other people’s songs than your own. When going with your own gut, how did you know when a song was finished for this record?

I guess, I created deadlines for myself, and then I let them pass. I held myself to a standard. I basically guilt-tripped myself – that was how I managed.

You’ve worked with a lot of artists from diverse musical backgrounds, across a range of genres. Do you have a set method to consolidate your approach to songwriting, when you’re working with someone from a different end of the spectrum?

I think that I’m somebody who is unique, in that I don’t, perhaps. I don’t think working with a big pop star helps me let go of the side of my brain that wants to make arty stuff. I feel like it’s my job to try to marry the two, no matter who I’m working with. If I made a really simple pop song, I would want it to break certain rules, in order to be unique. Otherwise, I would feel like I was lying to myself.

What I love about the album is that the details are so intricate – you use pitched cricket samples, but then with more conventional instruments, you subvert their role in the music (e.g. strings taking on a percussive sound). Where do you think this fascination with bending and challenging sound came from?

It came from college, and intellectualising music because I studied music, I was a music major, and throwing out all those morals and holding myself to this standard of applying those rules – maybe the rules, but maybe just the mentality – and applying that to making songs, as opposed to writing classical music.

I listened to a podcast where you talk about how you created “Bike Dream”, with live drums, and then an old ‘70s synth. What was your intention of using more organic features with computerised sounds?

To me, that’s the ultimate – to marry the fake and the real sounds, and create something that lives in the in-between space.

You’ve been writing music for a long time – “Bike Dream” was started 10 years ago. How did you decide what would make it onto the album?

I guess I felt like I knew when a song was meant to be finished, and it didn’t really matter when it started – it just mattered that I needed to finish it, at some point.

It’s interesting though, because it’s still all so cohesive, even though songs like “Thatch Snow” were also written across a number of years. What was so special about these songs in particular that you wanted to hold onto them and keep developing them?

I think it would be misleading to call that a song – it was a piece of music, and I didn’t know what kind of vocals would work with it. I wanted to challenge myself to figure out what to sing, and not let it go until I got somewhere. Where that somewhere was, was actually making it a song, and not just a piece of instrumental music.

I love the sound of the tar on “Wood”. There was a funny tweet where someone said their Afghan mum asked why they were listening “Persian music” when they were playing the song at home. How do your parents feel about your inclusion of your heritage in your sound?

I think they feel proud of me. They definitely taught me everything I know, really, about Persian culture, because I have never been to Iran. It was something that was always really important to them, growing up, that leaving Iran and the Revolution, that they would carry on aspects of Ancient Persia, and Ancient Persian culture in their lives.

A lot of the album was completed pre-election, so there’s inherently a political influence. Did you find yourself having to re-evaluate your identity with your heritage, as a second-generation American, amidst all that national conversation?

Interestingly no, because I think that a lot of the politics of this album don’t change depending on who’s president – there’s a lot of questions that we, as immigrants in America, have had to ask ourselves. I believe it has gotten worse, and people are less safe and have less rights for being immigrants, whether they’re citizens or not – that’s something that has changed since November. But even before that, I think those of us whose families were immigrants, and those of us who grew up feeling connected to our heritage from another country, we’ve always kind of had to ask ourselves questions about what it really means to be American, what it means to feel American. I’ve certainly always had that in my mind, and wondered about it.

Despite all the negativity, you talk about the use of the word ‘double’ instead of ‘half’ to describe duality. Do you consider yourself an optimist?

Absolutely – yes!

During college, you interned at the Oxford English Dictionary. Do you think that’s part of the reason you bend and challenge the meaning of words in your lyrics?

I think the reason that I interned was part of the reason that I’m interested in songwriting. I’ve always been fascinated with words, since I was a kid. I grew up speaking Persian, speaking and learning French, and speaking English, so I’ve always kind of had words and language on my mind. I remember being a kid, and trying to translate songs into different languages, because I just found it kind of fun. It’s an interest of mine, and I think it will continue to be. 

Extraordinary, especially cause most kids, myself included, were just glued to Nintendo.

I played a lot of Nintendo, too!

Haha, good to clear that up! I heard that you’re also already working on new material.

That’s true – that’s supposed to be a secret, but that’s true…

Can we expect to see you in Australia soon?

Absolutely – I would definitely like to come in 2018. We’re figuring out exactly when, but I think that it will happen.

Listen to ‘Half-Light’ here: